Ryerson University made a mistake two days ago. It lost sight of its mission in cancelling an upcoming panel discussion featuring controversial speakers that included University of Toronto psychologist Jordan Peterson and Rebel Media journalist Faith Goldy.
The panel discussion, whose topic, ironically, was to be “The Stifling of Free Speech on University Campuses”, was not a march riddled with Klan and neo-Nazis but a group of three conservative academics and one right-wing journalist whose ideas are odious to many of us, including me. But then, my ideas are likely odious to them.
According to the University’s explanation, it did not cancel lightly, but only after a security review in which it “concluded that Ryerson is not equipped to provide the necessary level of public safety for the event to go forward.” The violent confrontation and deaths in Charlottesville the previous Saturday may have both spooked Ryerson officials and made their decision seem prudent to many.
Opponents of the planned panel contributed to the fears – with their Facebook page headlined “No Fascists in Our City” adorned initially with a photo of a crossed-out swastika and a call for mass turnout to stop the panel. “This shit stops now. Either you’re with us or you’re not ... We are beyond psyched.”
These are difficult and worrisome times. There has been a resurgence of racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia and nativist nationalisms in many parts of the world. These antedated the recent American election but have been intensified by the actions of the U.S. President before and since the election. The solution is not suppression of offensive speech. It does not work. As Glenn Greenwald has rightly noted, attempts at suppression create free speech martyrs that strengthen them and make them seem more sympathetic.
Within the university, differences of views are its lifeblood and essential to its mission to advance knowledge and to educate students – a mission dependent on the freedom to express ideas, and the right to hear, analyze and criticize different perspectives. Ryerson’s own policy statement on “Freedom of Speech” specifically recognizes this:
“Ryerson does not avoid controversies, difficult ideas, or disagreements over deeply held views. When such disagreements arise within the University or within a broader social context, the University's primary responsibility is to protect free speech within a culture of mutual respect. The right to freedom of speech comes with the responsibility to exercise that right in an atmosphere free of intimidation and in an environment that supports the free speech rights of those with opposing views.”
In cancelling the event, Ryerson gave in to intimidation, prevented a panel discussion of difficult ideas and disagreement over deeply held views, and denied free speech rights to those with opposing views. The defence that it had to protect public safety is not acceptable. Just as paying ransom to kidnappers or pirates encourages more kidnapping and piracy, shutting down free speech in the face of threats of disruption only encourages more such threats in future as the way to deal with ideas one does not like.
Ryerson is by no means alone in giving in to threats. Over the past decade, we have seen an increasing number of universities in the United States and Canada cancel events and withdraw speaking invitations in the face of threats of disruption, as well as too frequent incidents of people being physically prevented from speaking.
Part of freedom of expression is the right to dissent, protest and criticize, but that right does not extend to intimidation, harassment or violence that denies others their free speech rights.
It appears as if we are starting down a dark road that threatens the raison d’être of the university and the fundamental rights to freedom of expression guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. If standing by its principles requires the university to make a greater investment in security personnel to protect freedom of expression, that must be seen as a proper cost of doing business. If the threats continue to blossom, then there need to be discussions with governments to ensure that universities have the additional financial resources so free expression does not fall victim to intimidation.
This is not a new issue for universities. In the late 1940s and early 1950s during the McCarthy period amidst anti-communist hysteria, many universities bent to public and state pressure. They abandoned their commitments to academic freedom and freedom of expression by imposing loyalty oaths on faculty and ridding their campuses of professors accused of being “communists” and “fellow travellers.” The harmful legacy of this university cowardice and complicity took years to overcome. We need to remember this past if we do not want to relive it, albeit in the name of new passions and different ideologies and concerns.
Not only are censorship and suppression fatal to the purpose of the university, they undermine the foundation of democratic society. When individual rights to freedom of expression are diminished or taken away for an allegedly good cause, they are necessarily invested in some higher authority that is given the right to determine what is acceptable. The result is censorship from above – ultimately the state – with the likelihood that the champions of that censorship today are its vulnerable targets tomorrow.